Song: Ghosts of the Baker Hotel

Texas songwriter Brian Burns wrote a wonderful ballad about the Grand Old Lady called Ghosts of the Baker Hotel.

Check out the words and listen to a clip, or listen to the full song via YouTube below.

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General William H. Simpson & The Baker Hotel

William H. SimpsonBefore General William Hood Simpson led the Ninth Army across the Rhine and into Germany in March of 1945, he served for a brief period as Commanding Officer at Camp Wolters from April to October 1941 in Mineral Wells.  According to a recorded interview in 1976 (in the Menger Hotel) with Simpson, he stated that he lived with his wife in the Baker Hotel during his seven-month stay in Mineral Wells.

General Simpson had been a man on the move his entire life.  As a boy, he grew up in and around Weatherford, Texas – only seventeen miles from Mineral Wells.  So during his seven months in Mineral Wells, it must have been a little bit like going home, although he admitted in an interview that the move to Camp Wolters was sudden and it caused him to doubt himself: “I’d really thought my career was ruined to be relieved as assistant commander of a combat division to command a replacement center.” Indeed, it was an interesting move to send a seasoned war General to oversee the basic training of new draftees, only a few months after being promoted to Brigadier General. However, from all accounts of every man and officer at Camp Wolters during his tenure there, Simpson was just the same man that he had been his entire life: engaged, involved, and inspiring. He continued to excel in everything he was tasked with, and as a result he was promoted to Major General in October of 1941.

Simpson LifeSimpson had been inspired at the age of ten by his grandfather Judge Hood (then a prominent judge and lawyer in Texas) to look into going to West Point, because his grandfather noticed how much he enjoyed the war games he played as a boy. So Simpson had his eye on West Point, and at the age of sixteen, he read in the paper that there was a vacant position and that they wanted to appoint someone from Parker County, Texas – which is where he was from. He and only one other boy from the area applied – and he got the appointment. After graduating from West Point in 1909, he served in the Philippines and Mexico (chasing Pancho Villa with Patton) before being promoted to Captain and joining the 33rd Division in World War I. He then got married and served in many interwar period appointments before becoming a Major General and leading the Ninth Army during WWII.

General Simpson was self-confident, tall, lean, bald, and a sharp dresser.  However, when compared to more theatrical war figures like Patton and Montgomery, he was perhaps considered a more understated, less visible leader. Regardless, Simpson’s quiet confidence and steady competence continued to make a strong impression on his commanding officers as he rose in rank.

Simpson During WWIIEisenhower himself stated that he could find no mistake in Simpson’s leadership. “He was,” Eisenhower wrote, “the type of leader American soldiers deserve.”

According to his staff that knew him well, General Simpson was a true leader, the kind of man with a real presence. He was charismatic, warm, sincere and inspiring to his officers and his men, inspiring clarity and focus even during high stress war situations. He was described as a good listener with an understanding smile, quick with praise and encouragement. His temper didn’t flare easily, but everybody knew it when he wasn’t happy, and they worked hard to correct it. Armistead D. Mead, Simpson’s wartime Brigadier General, said that he had “an iron fist in a velvet glove.”

Simpson often walked among his men casually, listening and seeking to understand when they talked about their problems. And when he said he’d look into a situation, he always did, and he always followed up.

“General Simpson’s genius lay in his charismatic manner, his command presence, his ability to listen, his unfailing use of his staff to check things out before making decisions, and his way of making all hands feel that they were important to him and to the army.” – General Armistead D. Mead

Simpson retired in 1946 and was an active member of the San Antonio community where he lived until he passed away in 1980 at age 92.

It has been truly fascinating to learn about this great man whose story is forever intertwined into the history of the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells.

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D.W. Griffith: A Little Bit of Hollywood in Mineral Wells

D.W. Griffith, Crazy Water Hotel Roof ~1929

D.W. Griffith, Crazy Water Hotel Roof ~1929

Legendary Hollywood movie director D.W. Griffith was an early pioneer of film in America, known for his silent movies between 1908-1924.  Some of our nation’s very first movie stars like Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin starred in Griffith’s films. He is also largely credited for inventing many important features of the craft, including the “close up,” the “fade out” and the moving camera.  Griffith was the first to attach a camera to a moving vehicle (and even to a custom-built elevator!) in order to get moving action shots and wide, panoramic views.

However, Griffith’s work was not without controversy, and his famous film “The Birth of a Nation” was criticized as being highly racist.  He was also not able to make the jump from silent films into “talkies” in the early 30s – and his films with full sound failed to resonate with audiences and critics.  It’s possible that his unfortunate situation may have lent some inspiration to the 1952 musical comedy “Singin’ In the Rain.”

According Richard Schickel’s biography of Griffith, the director visited Mineral Wells “to dry out” during the “last spring of the decade.” The year was 1929, just before the Baker Hotel opened in November.  Griffith stayed at the Crazy Water Hotel according to telegraph records, and there’s a great picture of him standing on the roof of the Crazy Water (Photo taken from “Time Was in Mineral Wells” by A.F. Weaver).

Local folklore has it that the “WELCOME” sign on East Mountain inspired the famous “HOLLYWOOD” sign, and that D.W. Griffith has some connection to that. Unfortunately the timeline doesn’t match up, and the legend is likely a false one.  However, it is true that the big white Mineral Wells “WELCOME” sign on East Mountain went up in 1922, a year before the famous “HOLLYWOODLAND” sign in 1923. It’s also true that Mineral Wells was a resort mecca for Hollywood types back in the ’20s.

So who knows? Maybe there’s a little Hollywood magic in Mineral Wells.

Hollywood Sign, Welcome Sign

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Video: Baker Preservation Society

A great video showing what the hotel looked like then and now.

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Merry Christmas, T.B. Baker

A contact recently provided me with a great old color photograph of 1920s Texas hotel magnate T.B. Baker at Christmas-time.  My best guess is that it was taken in the mid-sixties.  Here he is – around 1910 (~age 35) and around 1965 1958 (age 83).

Cheers to the hope that his Grand Old Lady will finally be restored in the new year.

T. B. Baker SCN_0003

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Who was Earl Baker?

Earl Maynard Baker, the nephew of hotel tycoon T.B. Baker, ran two of the Baker hotels for most of his adult life.  He was General Manager of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio for over twenty years before he sold it almost at once when his uncle T.B. turned over the deed in the fifties.  Perhaps even more famously, for forty years he also managed (and later owned) the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells until his death in 1967.  During his tenure as owner, he unsuccessfully attempted to get rid of the Grand Old Lady on several occasions, and he famously followed through on his ultimatum to shut it down on his 70th birthday in 1963 if he didn’t find a buyer.  However, the hotel  did re-open again from 1965-1972, thanks to the efforts of a group of scrappy local businesspeople who wouldn’t let the landmark go – they paid Earl monthly rent to keep the doors open.

History has not been especially kind to Earl’s memory. Are some of the stories true?  Probably. But are some of them just rumors? Probably.  Based on research done so far, I’ll attempt to help separate the two:

Earl Baker & Two WomenDid Earl have a mistress named Virginia Brown who killed herself inside the Baker Hotel? It is not known whether a woman named Virginia Brown (or any mistress) existed at all, although the ghost hunter programs that routinely film inside the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells would certainly like you to think so.  According to some, the specter of Earl’s mistress Virginia still haunts her suite on the seventh floor, stopping to flirt with male visitors.  More than one person has mentioned smelling her perfume or sensing a playful spirit.  What is certain, however, is that no young woman ever killed herself inside the Baker hotel (and for the record, nobody ever jumped from the balcony to the pool, either.)  That said, what we do know is that Earl and his wife divorced at some point, and that he did not remarry.  There are enough rumors surrounding his character to make the mistress story believable, but it has not been confirmed.  And I certainly don’t have any information about who these two ladies might be with him in the picture above. Aside from the fact that there are two women sitting on his lap, that cheetah print fur is telling us quite a story of it’s own – am I right?   Edit to original post: The woman in cheetah fur has been identified as Mr. Baker’s wife, Gladys. 

Did Earl engage in court battles with his family? Yes. In the 1940s, Earl and his elderly aunt Myla (who I believe lived at the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells at the time) were engaged in a lengthy court battle in Texas over shares to the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio.   When T.B. had money to do so, he had always provided for his unmarried sister Myla, but it appears that something bitter and contentious happened between Earl and Myla later on.  The detailed court records of this case were recently discovered, in fact, and I look forward to updating you on what I find out.

Earl BakerDid Earl have a drinking problem? Sources seems to suggest – probably.  Several pictures and brochures found in his personal effects after he died suggest that he struggled with alcohol.  The picture to the left may have been taken inside an office in the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells.

Did Earl die at the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells?  Yes and no.  After Earl closed the hotel on his 70th birthday in 1963, unhappy local Mineral Wells businesspeople scraped together the funds to re-open the aging hotel, hoping to keep the tourism in town alive. Then, at some point in 1967, Earl came back to the hotel.  Some say that he had just come back for a quick visit, and others suggest that he might have begun living in the Baker Suite.   In any case, on December 3, 1967, Earl had a heart attack in the Baker Suite on the eleventh floor and subsequently died in the hospital in Mineral Wells.  Earl was 74 years old.

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“Fifteen Story Hotel to be Built at Austin”

On November 16, 1922, The San Antonio Evening News announced that T.B. Baker had completed negotiations to build what would become the Stephen F. Austin Hotel in downtown Austin, although the (now famous) location on Congress Avenue had not yet been selected.

It seems that the hotel was designed to have fifteen stories all along, but purposefully, only eleven of them were completed for the grand opening in 1924.  The original rooftop ballroom terrace (now gone) was intended to be temporary all along!  When the new owner added the additional floors in the mid-thirties, did they know  that they were completing Baker’s original vision for a 15 story hotel?

The article also mentions that one of Baker’s “new” ideas for the future hotel revolved around serving local Austinites: it would feature an unusually large lobby for the purpose of being used as an open meeting space for lawyers, UT students, and legislators.

Stephen F. Austin Planned

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A Poem for the Baker

The following poem and love letter to the Baker Hotel by W.S. Genaro originally appeared in the November 20, 1929 Grand Opening edition of the Mineral Wells Index

Special thanks to Sheri Glover for sending this my way!

——

Psychologists tell us our dreams will come true,
If we hold to a pattern and steadfastly do,
Those things that will tend towards making them real,
That is, catch the spirit—then act as we feel.

If you’ve tried this, you know that the theory is sound
And everywhere proof of its workings are found.
One wondrous example of which I might tell;
The Magnificent Mineral Wells Baker Hotel.

We pass through its portals—we’re awed—and we seem,
Not awake, but just having a wonderful dream!
O’er come by its splendor we’re under the spell
Of this dream house, the Mineral Wells Baker Hotel.

All the architect’s cunning and artisan’s skill,
Have been lavished upon it, and gaze where you will,
The picture is gorgeous and restful as well,
In the marvelous Mineral Wells Baker Hotel.

If we ponder a moment in truth we must find,
It was once but a picture in somebody’s mind;
Just a dream that’s come true—that worked out so well,
That its fruit is the Mineral Wells Baker Hotel.

All who visit our city for pleasure or health,
Are convinced that men of vision and wealth;
Have planned for their comfort and wonderfully well,
In building the Mineral Wells Baker Hotel.

We have reason for pride in our prospects today,
We who live in this haven of health, rest and play;
We believe in the future of Mineral Wells,
And are proud of the Baker and Crazy Hotels.

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New Photos of “Uncle Pete” (T.B. Baker)

I’m very excited to be able to post two recently discovered photos of T.B. Baker, the original builder and operator of The Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells, Texas. A family member who knew him confirmed that this is indeed “Uncle Pete” (as he was called among family).  I’m thrilled to see that our favorite 1920s hotel tycoon is looking dapper, even well into his seventies.

The first photograph shows a relaxed family scene from what appears to be the mid-thirties,  when Baker would have been about 60.  He fell on hard times during the Depression, and his clothing seems to reflect that.

T.B. Baker "Uncle Pete"

T.B. Baker (“Uncle Pete”) c. 1935?

This second photograph was dated 1952, when T.B. Baker would have been about 76.   Love that he is wearing a double breasted suit and standing in front of a Cadillac!  The same year in 1952, T.B. Baker turned over his final ownership of all remaining hotels (including the Gunter Hotel) to his nephew Earl M. Baker.

T.B. Baker ("Uncle Pete") in ~1952 (Age 76)

T.B. Baker (“Uncle Pete”) c.1952

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Champagne Music at the Top of the Baker

Lawrence WelkYoung Lawrence Welk 1930s recalls entertaining in the Sky Room at the top of the Baker Hotel in the 1930s, back when he could barely speak English:

“I remember the Baker as one of the more lavish hotels in Texas,” he said, “A famed resort. Lots of rich ladies.”

He also often played in the dining room of the Dallas Baker Hotel for lunchtime guests.

Here is a video of a Lawrence Welk performance from 1938, which is probably an indication of what his performances at the Baker were like:

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